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Descants for All!

By Fred Bogert

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I enjoy working with small choirs. When the big, broad clouds of sound available from a mass assemblage are not an option,  the energy and focus of a 12 or 16-member unit can still be exciting for singers and audiences alike.

With smaller numbers come fewer parts. SATB with an occasional solo is usually the limit, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no good adventure to be had. Some simple variations in harmony can liven things up. Counterpoint is fun, too, though sometimes a bit stiff. I prefer the runaway child of counterpoint – the descant. It’s like having two songs woven together when that independent second melody shows up. The audience feels the spinning tension between theme and descant, which adds power and peace to the original theme when it reappears later.

There’s a wonderful small choir I work with who love good musical adventures.

To strengthen their voices and ears, I arranged a descant study for them based on the classic melody of “Breathe on Me Breath of God.” After a conventional start I have the sopranos and altos sing a double descant against the tenors’ and baritones’ unison melody, ending in a false cadence and key modulation.

Then the roles reverse and the SA’s sing harmonized melody while the TB’s do their own descant, followed by a surprise modulation into a broad restatement of the theme in solid block harmony. The result is a short anthem with lots of fun packed in. In rehearsals I have the descant singers practice separately, and without much trouble the assembled group can maintain the independent parts while listening to the whole. 

The map I used to do this arrangement fits lots of songs that have simple melodies and forms. Folk songs, Shaker tunes and even some pop melodies are grist for this kind of mill. Descant your heart out, y’all!

Fred Bogert has spent the last 45 years in the music business. He has produced, written for and performed on three Grammy-nominated CDs, as well as appearing as composer, producer and performer with a variety of artists, from John McEuen and David Amram to the Austin Symphony and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Bogert’s Nashville studios included RCA Studio B and Studio C, where he recorded over three thousand songs for a who’s who of independent artists. His website is fredbogert.com, and his choral scores are available on sheetmusicplus.com. Bogert lives in Louisville, KY.

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